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FX: a blog in which I enthuse about BBC radio drama

I’ve been a fan of the BBC’s radio drama for a long time, but my enthusiasm has grown hugely in recent years. The output is diverse, and its quality outstanding. At the time of writing Radio 4 is broadcasting Dangerous Visions – a series of adaptations of classic science fiction works, including Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man from Brian Sibley, Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, adapted by Jonathan Holloway, and a 15-minute piece by Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Lauren Beukes1. Over the past few days I’ve also listened to several Afternoon Plays via the BBC’s iPlayer service, as well as dramatisations of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by Christopher Hampton, and Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge by Mike Walker.

Radio 4’s Afternoon Play is a bit like Forrest Gump’s box o’ chocolates: unsurprisingly they’re often dramatic, but they can also be funny, unusual, and often moving. Sometimes the productions are straight-through dramas, such as Referee by Nick Perry, the story of corruption in the beautiful game, or Justin Hopper’s Dog Days – the poignant tale of a father and son relationship set against the backdrop of independent greyhound racing. Others, such as Paul Cornell’s Something in the Water, use flashbacks or other interesting techniques to move the story along or give insight into character motivation and history.

One such play – the first to really make me sit up and think I want to write this stuff2 – is Déja Vu by French writer and actress Alexis Zegerman. Produced by the BBC in conjunction with the French Arté Radio, this play – which you can still listen to here! – uses some unusual, atmospheric sound effects and features a French linguaphone with issues. Pitched as a love story (although I’m not sure it is), Déja Vu also tackles issues of prejudice and race, and there’s a fascinating awkwardness between the lines of the characters’ relationship. I love the quirkiness in the way this play tells its story.

Linguaphone: My heart might explode. (whispers) All over this room.

“There’s nothing to spy except spiders”

I’ve become a particular fan of Katie Hims’ work. Hims’ plays often have an historical setting or connection. There’s a simplicity and disarming emotional connection that makes Hims’ plays immediately accessible and engaging. You know the people in her plays; very often you are the people in her plays.

Lost Property is a beautifully constructed 3-part story covering 70 years, interweaving lives and crossing continents as circumstances affecting evacuees in World War Two have a huge knock-on effect. Listening to the Dead: Four Sons is the story of baker’s wife Clara – a medium who finds herself unravelling as World War One looms: she knows her boys will go off to fight, and sees the fate that awaits them. Even the Prime Minister comes to hear of Clara’s “gift”.

Clara: I wish we had girls.
Narrator: But they didn’t. They didn’t have girls. They had four sons. A goalkeeper, a poet, a heartbreaker and a saint.

Not all Hims’ plays are tear-jerkers, though: Samson and Delilah features a matter-of-fact angel from oop north played by Sean Baker, who bursts into flames in order to return to heaven after informing Tracey – a hairdresser who’s desperate for a baby – that she’s finally going to have one – and all of the infant’s special requirements.

“She smelled of sulphur”

Productions in the Afternoon Play slot are also often humorous, such as Jeff Young’s The Exuberant, a story about rival meteorite hunters seeking a recent arrival. The HighLites: Wash and Blow series by Steve Chambers and Phil Nodding, recently broadcast in the 15-minute slot during Woman’s Hour, is set aboard a 5-day cruise around the fjords. The play takes place in one of the cabins, with the hum of the ship setting the scene, along with occasional announcements over the tannoy by the vessel’s captain, or references to various locations and events elsewhere on board. This really does, if you’ll excuse the pun, highlight (ahem) the importance of dialogue in this medium, with some wonderful wordplay throughout.

Bev: You need to face up to the harsh realities of life instead of burying your head in an ostrich, Nigel. It’s not too late to save your marriage.
Nigel: It’s over, Bev.
Bev: It’s not over ’til the fat baby sings.

“If the story changed, who would they be?”

For me as a writer and a genuine enthusiast of BBC radio drama, it’s exciting that the corporation actively seeks new talent3. Radio 4 recently broadcast 10 new plays under the heading of Original British Dramatists. The stand-out piece for me was The Cloistered Soul by Rachel Connor.

I connected with the The Cloistered Soul on many levels, but the space, gentle pace, acting performances and subtlety of production were all absolutely wonderful. As the story progressed I found myself thinking how has she done that? regarding Connor’s script, given the huge amount of space the dialogue enjoyed without slowing down the story. I’ve downloaded the script to read through when I listen again.

Dramas that delight and surprise

I can’t emphasise how much I love this stuff. The output is varied and challenging and often daring, giving opportunities for writers to really stretch themselves and tell stories in interesting ways. You won’t find anything like this anywhere else. It’s unique to us, and we’re very lucky to have material of this standard available. You can listen when you’re working, driving, walking the dog or ironing, or simply having a lazy morning in bed. Try a few of these plays out, and you might just find yourself converted.

I did.

Martin
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Listen out for

  • The Dangerous Visions season is being broadcast as I write. If you can’t listen live catch up on iPlayer.

  • Coming soon is Home Front, an epic 4-year project covering stories of people in Britain during World War One. With Katie Hims on the writing team and Jessica Dromgoole at the helm, this promises to be great.

  • To keep up with what’s happening in the world of BBC radio drama, subscribe to the Drama of the Week newsletter. You can also download scripts from the Writersroom site – an invaluable resource for anyone with an interest in scriptwriting for any medium.

  • You can also download a wealth of material outside drama. Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless Nights podcasts – a look at the nocturnal goings on in and around the UK, delivered in his distinctive style – are absolutely wonderful.


  1. “It’s pronounced like ‘mucus’ ”, she once told me. 

  2. I have a script on submission with a producer at this very moment. Will it be good enough? Only time will tell. 
  3. I use the word “talent” here to avoid a repetition of “writer”, rather than to imply that I might have any talent! 

A Death in the Family – Joel Lane, 1963-2013

The internet can be cruel. You open your laptop or iPad and log into Facebook and it’s the usual slew of game requests, dog photos and paragraphs of poignant observation posted because, well, it’s just so true, ain’t it? and I never would’ve thought if you hadn’t said. And then there’s a picture of this guy you like and admire, his cheeky face looking out from the screen and you smile inside. He has a particular way of perceiving the world, and although awkward and shy he writes this stuff that highlights the grit of life and the vomit on the pavement and can remind you of that sick feeling you got when that thing with that girl or boy just didn’t quite go the way you’d hoped. And then you read that he’s dead. Share if you agree. Please like my page. Here’s a photo of my dinner. And a slap in the face.

You saw him not long ago. Emailed last week. Yet as you scroll down post after post confirms this news, each doubling the blow. Universally liked, he wasn’t much older than you, shared your taste in music, was one of those people with whom you could connect. Had a dry sense of humour that could slip unnoticed between the lines of everyday conversation if you weren’t paying attention.

You’ve always believed in karma. What goes round comes round, you reap what you sow. All that. But when celebrities lead lives of riches and fame and take what they want when they want it regardless of the effects on those they abuse, then die without repercussion, and this guy you knew who was kind and gentle is snatched away with no just cause – where’s your karma then?

Do you want to meet single women over 40 in your area? Good deals on solar panels! Your friend is dead. Dislike. Thumbs down. No.


Recommended reading
The Earth Wire, and Other Stories
From Blue to Black
The Lost District
Where Furnaces Burn

photo 2

THE PUREST FORM

A blog about the music of Brian Eno, Harold Budd & others, in which I let myself go a bit

During the day I often have BBC Radio 3 playing at a very low volume: unlike recordings with vocal content the classical music doesn’t interfere with my train of thought in any way, but does provide a level of stimulus. (Radio 3 does play a lot of opera, which is obviously vocal, but you know what I mean.) A while ago the station played a gentle ambient piece by Brian Eno, which caught my attention. I looked up some more Eno, and asked a friend who likes Eno’s music what he’d recommend as a starting point. He suggested a couple of albums.

I’ve found that I love this stuff. The title track of The Pearl, an album by Brian Eno and Harold Budd, is wonderfully eerie and atmospheric, a deceptively simple composition that gradually increases in complexity and layering. Through headphones a stereo-pan whooshing sound is audible, which I reckon is one of the analogue effects used on the track, adding an effect of its own. The music overall is like fairies, sparks of light that exist in the spaces between moments. Curious visitors with delicate, pointed features, thin bones visible through their translucent skin.

The Winter Garden album – a collaboration between Eraldo Bernocchi, Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie – is probably my favourite. Harmony and the Play of Light is a beautiful track of sweet, gentle sounds with almost menacing undertones and harmonics. Instead of decaying, notes increase in volume, or shift in pitch, or develop vibrato. The relationships between the notes change and grow. The notes seem to create music of their own as other sounds rise or drift in. I see a black lake in a cavern. The light of the music reflects off the water’s oily surface, changing colour and shimmering. The lights rise, blue and white and sparkling gold, then drift back into the blackness. Some of the notes are old and wise. Younger ones want to play.

Heavy Heart Some More is like signals broadcast by a vast alien machine housed in a subterranean chamber. It’s ancient. Huge. A monolith. It’s sent out these signals for thousands of years but received no response. None will come.

There is Nobody on Eno’s Music for Films is almost tribal-sounding. Quartz is beams of light in ice-blue and gold rising from circles of stone in a pebbled garden, merging with thicker red and orange bands. Alternative 3 is a giant wolf stalking, trailing salvia, all hot breath and coarse black fur.

Slow Water on Eno’s album Music for Films has distant alien broadcasts. Then wine glasses singing. (You know how to make a wine glass sing, right? Right.) And maybe a bit of whale song. Then it all comes together in this incredibly relaxed, gentle piece. A woman in a floaty dress levitates above the ground with her arms swaying out beside her. She’s looking to her right, long red hair rising up above her shoulders. Maybe she’s under water. She just drifts, utterly at peace. As the track fades, she does too.

I find this music really stimulating to work to. All music I’ve previously experienced has been somehow two-dimensional, created and performed. But the music of Eno and Budd et al is not of this world; it is of other, far more exotic places. It is the music of gods and aliens, of transcendence. I don’t think this music is even owned by the musicians who created it – each soundscape is an entity in its own right. It’s as if these musicians have formed these sounds and then released them to find their own way, in turn producing sounds of their own. An analogy is obvious. To me this music seems to represent the purest form of creation.

Gotta love your man – a blog about Riders on the Storm

Riders on the Storm was never really one of my favourite tracks by The Doors. It was a bit too sophisticated, and that thunderstorm stuff was a bit corny, wasn’t it? I always preferred more rock ‘n’ roll/blues tracks such as Back Door Man and Soul Kitchen. But I was younger then, and while I still really like these tracks, when listening to Riders on the Storm recently I was stuck by the track’s true beauty.

Ray Manzarek’s keyboard shimmers and sparkles. John Densmore’s drums are soft and jazzy and sit snug with the steady bass from Jerry Scheff. The vocals are warm but with a distant, ghostly reverb. And Robby Krieger’s guitar? If I still played guitar and could have only one sound it would be the clean tone on this track. It’s smooth and warm and sweet, with just the right amount of sparkle through the amp as Krieger digs in. Listen as Morrison sings take a long holiday or make him understand within the first few minutes, and you’ll hear the guitar sound thicken as the harmonics develop. There’s a great contrast with the vibrato sound, too.

It’s not just about the sounds of course, but the playing. The musicianship is wonderful, the lightness of touch and the relationship between the members of the band really in evidence. The guitar and keyboards often play the same phrases simultaneously – a feature of many Doors tracks – or bounce off each other while the rhythm section maintains a solid foundation.

Riders is a gradual builder. So gradual you don’t realise it’s happening. The track’s relatively long, too, with an extended jazz/funk instrumental break. This section itself builds, gradually increasing in intensity, pace and complexity until eventually the keyboard takes us by the hand and leads us down into a wonderful, quiet few moments of thunder and rain. Then there’s a brief drum fill, and the steady, mellow music resumes. This bit gives me the tingles every time.

The production seems relatively straight, but the simplicity might be deceptive: often a considerable amount of work has gone into making something like this seem uncomplicated. Listening to the track repeatedly, many details become apparent. For example as the track ends and the storm reaches its peak the very subtle percussion becomes busier, and Morrison’s repetition of riders on the storm gradually gets more vocal layers until he can be heard screaming the words way back in the mix.

And then it all slows, the shimmering call and response guitar and keyboards fading as the storm weakens. Wonderful.

Here’s a link to Riders on the Storm, on youtube.

Martin
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Deborah Miller

It was with great sadness that I learned this week of the death from cancer of fantasy author Debbie Miller (AKA Deborah J Miller and Miller Lau).

I’m not exactly sure when Deb and I first met, but I think we were both with Earthlight back when my Structure novels were approaching publication. I know I spent a lot of time with Debbie and her daughter Tiffany at the 2005 World Fantasy Convention in Glasgow, and then at various Eastercons.

I most recently saw her at NewCon in Northampton, which I think was a few years ago. I thought she seemed a little dispirited, which I assumed was due to career problems she mentioned at the time – but perhaps her illness had kicked in again too. I knew she’d suffered from cancer some years earlier, but thought she was winning the battle.

Debbie was one of the few people I’ve met in life who I got on with from the get-go, and who I felt I’d know far longer than I had. Looking back, the number of hours I spent in her company was probably in the single digits, but it felt much more than that.

Always smiling and laughing and full of banter, Deb was one of the good guys. And judging from post by others I’ve seen since news of her death emerged, universally liked. She will be sorely missed.

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